The new Ubuntu desktop, Unity 8

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Ubuntu has turned the desktop inside out with Unity 8. However, Unity 8's new concepts do not always impress in their current state.

Unlike the Debian releases on which it is based, Ubuntu usually has six month release cycles. Since its latest announcement of new functions, Canonical is running further behind schedule than ever before. By way of example, a completely redesigned Unity 8 was already planned for Ubuntu 15.04. Moreover, the current release is still missing functions needed for every day use. However, you can install the advanced version, unity8-desktop-session , using the package manager.

The Unity's roots reach back to 2011 and version 11.04. Prior to the appearance of the current stable version, Unity 7, this Canonical desktop made do with the graphical X Window server that Linux has been using for ages. However this ancestor from the previous century gradually turned into an ever greater burden. Smartphones can all handle smooth 3D effects, but fade effects and scaling windows overtax a desktop. X Window runs as an independent process and window managers, like KWin in KDE or Mutter in Gnome, have to take several detours when it comes to animation.

In order to modernize the infrastructure, some developers launched Wayland as a display server. If used with appropriate the libraries and toolkits, Wayland simplifies the workings of the graphical interface. The Wayland protocol is much less complicated than the protocol for the X Window System, and it handles 3D acceleration right out of the box. Modern windows managers provide direct support for the new functions, thus making an individual process for the server obsolete. These improvements have been met with widespread approval for Wayland from the community. As a result, KDE, Gnome, and Enlightenment have based their windows managers on Wayland and are gradually heading down that road.

However, Canonical decided that Wayland was not sufficient to meet the requirements it had in mind for using Ubuntu on a smartphone. As a result, the company started working in 2013 on a display server called Mir [1]. Unity 8 sits on Mir. The parallel efforts invested in developing Mir and Wayland show that it can take years to replace an established system component. The question arises as to whether and in what way the Unity 8 and Mir combo will ultimately grow into a modern desktop.

Roller Coaster

Unity 8 is actually already preinstalled in the final version of Ubuntu 16.10 (Yakkety Yak). However, Unity 7.5 is set as the default desktop. After log out, the login screen offers the choice between the stable Unity environment and the new Unity 8 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Unity 8 reveals its true purpose when you deactivate the desktop mode. All of the applications start in full screen as a standard window and without a window bar.

If you select Unity 8, then the experimental desktop will start. During testing, the start-up was fast and smooth. The look and feel of Unity 8 is similar to that of KDE Plasma 5 as well as current versions of Windows or Mac OS X. As with these other desktops, the 3D effects for Unity 8 are slick, unadorned, and uncomplicated (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Unity 8 already has visual charm as shown here with the toggle for applications. However, good looks are not helpful if you have to jump through hoops to start standard apps.

Unlike the previous Unity desktop where the left bar remains visible until you change the relevant settings, from the very beginning, the bar in the current version only appears with mouse contact or by pressing the Super key (the Windows button). For now, the meager number of settings options don't allow you to change this (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The sidebar disappears when the cursor leaves its vicinity. There are currently no options to change this behavior.

Unity 7's Dash , which is used for starting programs and is opened with the Super key, has given way to Scopes , which looks like an ordinary program window (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The Scopes window with its bumpy search function can be moved freely on the desktop, but it does not yet work like a viable substitute for Dash from Unity 7.

Not Yet Mature

Even viewed with the best of intentions, Scopes does not represent a step forward. In fact, the window may remind older users of the program manager from Windows 3.1. You still have to inconveniently click around on the interface in order to find the names of programs. Simply typing in the name as you did before is not enough.

However, the biggest disadvantage to the new environment is that Scopes only displays System Settings and Browser no matter which programs you install on the system. It is not possible to open programs without a starter icon as you were able to previously with Alt+F2 or on the console. For the time being, standard programs written for the X Window interface only start under Unity 8 with a detour.

The X Window System does not run after login. Instead, only the display server Mir, which is Ubuntu-specific, will run. As a result, your regular apps need the intermediate layer provided by XMir and the Libertine container program.

Install the Libertine with

sudo apt install libertine libertine-scope libertine-tools

Currently, this program requires that you reinstall all of the programs for Unity 8 in a container you set up beforehand (Figure 5). Fortunately, setting up the containers is mercifully straightforward.

Figure 5: Legacy applications, which currently consist of all programs except for a browser, need to be installed for a second time with Unity 8.

Another click on the entry for this new container lets you install Debian packages from the Ubuntu repositories. Each program previously installed on your system is now integrated into Unity 8 using this method, and it takes up twice the space on your disk. However, despite its clunkiness, the system does work, and your programs now appear in Scopes under Applications – to see them, drag down the upper "blind" in the Applications scope to refresh.

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